For those of you who have not heard, poet Jake Adam York, 40, died Sunday.
If you have heard, you may have read (or written) Facebook comments or blog entries such as "Oh, no!" or "Too, too young!" Although true, I will not focus here on his untimely death. I will, however, eulogize Jake York in two ways that I can: 1) witness to his spirit of generosity to this very minor poet at our one and only meeting; and 2) recommend his work for those who do not know it--for if you do, it needs no other recommendation. First, his work.
I met Jake York at the Chicago AWP in 2009, shortly after A Murmuration of Starlings had won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award. He was on a panel with other poets the likes of Sean Nevin and Camille Dungy, as well as some fiction writers I, frankly, cannot remember. During his 10 minutes, I was taken with not only the poems he read, but the back story of the manuscript--"part of an ongoing project to elegize and memorialize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, whose names are inscribed on the stone table of the Civil Rights Memorial that stands today outside the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama." In other words, York had set out to write a poem to tell the story of every single person listed on the memorial--all who had died fighting for civil rights.
A Murmuration of Starlings speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. Like Lamar Smith, 13 August 1955, Brookhaven, Mississippi:
No one sees him cross the courthouse lawn,
the lone black man in the election crowd,
and no one steps from the line and pulls a gun
then slips past the sheriff and the whole white town
and no one disappears into history
covered in blood and gunpowder sulphur
while the old man collapses in wreathes of smoke
and ballots wing in the billow of his fall.
Like Louis Allen, 31 January 1964, Liberty, Mississippi.
The ministers rise from empty plates
like the steam of chicken and greens
and puff into coats, into prayers, and then
the unlit streets, ready for tomorrow's march
or gathering or prayers, and then the dark
is beating "Hey niggers" though only their coats are black
and the night and everything so they cannot see
what's coming, what hits them, what feet, what pipes
at their ribs, who's saying "Now you know,
now you know what it's like to be a real nigger"
and no one can see what lands, what cracks
the skull, the hairline fracture in tangled hair,
what's nesting, what's beating there,
what wings are gathering in his eyes
Or like Jimmie Lee Jackson, for whom York dedicates his ten-page title poem, "A Murmuration of Starlings." I share the opening stanzas here, but not before I share the epigraph to the first poem of the book, "Shall Be Taught to Speak:"
"I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion."
--Henry IV, Part One
A Murmuration of Starlings
for Jimmie Lee Jackson
18-26 February 1965, Marion and Selma, Alabama
A cloud of starlings drifts from the river,
at first, a smudge on the sky
or the hospital window,
then more definite,
contracting then scattering
Nuns ghost, white-robed
as night riders in the farm-edge pines
haunting the forest along the river,
like lilies on Cahaba's shoals.
Whenever he wakes someone else is there
just out of view
prayer drowned in the rasp of breath
a song like breaking glass.
Wings clench in the fluorescent tubes,
flutter of shadows
the state patrol colonel
darkening the bed
handcuffs on the rail,
a warrant for a tongue.
just out of view.
At the church just after dark
hymns, then the night march
across the square
to sing through the jailhouse window
and February to their brother
who can hear them in their pews,
hear them descend
to the waiting mayor and police chief,
state troopers who bullhorn them back.
When the reverend kneels to pray,
one patrolman swings his club,
all the lights go down.
carve their bodies from the dark,
break and pucker of serge and wool
on arms boxed
to catch the blows,
from the flex of uniform sleeves
coats taut between the blades,
white helmets' gleam
and above, a heaven of breath
and steam and smoke from which
coughing dense night air
at the cusp of the lens
carving through the barrel
to spread the shutters blind
No one sees the congregation scatter
or the troopers chase
to the river or church
or blockhouse cafe
No one sees the bottles flying
as they climb the stairs
or the bricks in the troopers' affidavits
No one sees the clubs
or the thousand starlings
smoking at the lights
No one sees the old woman
swinging Cokes on the troopers' heads
or falling from their sticks
or the old man lunging in their affidavits
or the young one, the grandson
step in to catch the blow
or take the gun
They see the flash and kickback
Jimmie Lee folding in the glass
of the cigarette machine
tube light halo, electric hum
the grandfather's face arriving, arriving
in the intermittent light.
I sat in the front row transfixed. Afterwards, as panel members were packing up their notes, gathering up their books, moving on to whatever followed, I made my way to the table where York sat. He didn't move right away, and as I walked toward him, he looked at me--the only panel member to do so. He spoke first, and thanked me for being such a good listener, for giving him a focal point--my words, not his--I don't remember exactly what he said. What I do remember is that he gave an inordinate amount of time and energy to someone who didn't register on the poetic richter scale. But it didn't matter to him. He made me feel as if he were willing to give himself to the moment as much as any moment in history, and to me as much as to any unknown voice. That's why he was there.
And now the table is turned. I add my one voice to the multitudes who call attention to his. In A Murmuration of Starlings he is still speaking for those who cannot.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for two decades. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com